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Would we be any happier?Thomas Jones
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Vol. 42 No. 4 · 20 February 2020

Would we be any happier?

Thomas Jones

2253 words
Agency 
by William Gibson.
Viking, 402 pp., £18.99, January, 978 0 241 23721 2
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In​ the notorious job advert he posted on his blog last month – has anyone applied? – Dominic Cummings was hard-pressed to describe what he meant by ‘super-talented weirdos’. ‘By definition I don’t really know what I’m looking for,’ the prime minister’s chief special adviser wrote. The best he could do was to reach for a fictional comparison: ‘weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand “diviner” who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger’. ‘That girl’ is Cayce Pollard, the 32-year-old protagonist of Pattern Recognition (2003). She isn’t the narrator, quite (the story is told in the third person), but it’s her eyes we see through. It tells you something, not very flattering, about Cummings that he’s hoping to hire fictional characters to work in Downing Street; it tells you something else that he describes a woman in her thirties as a ‘girl’ (not that he’d care, since he despises people like me ‘babbling about “gender identity diversity blah blah”’); and something else again, perhaps least flattering of all, that his dim memory of Gibson’s novel should have turned it so perversely back to front, or inside-out, that the person he has named, assigned agency to and identified with – they’re both hiring, after all – is Hubertus Bigend, a larger-than-life billionaire Belgian entrepreneur, but unquestionably a secondary character in the novel. Cayce, one of the more memorable heroes in 21st-century American fiction – who, as it happens, would never in a million years work for Dominic Cummings – is relegated to a minor role as an anonymous ‘weirdo’ hireling.

Verity Jane, in Gibson’s new novel, Agency (Jane is her surname, as in Jane’s Fighting Ships), is the same sort of age (33) as Cayce and has the same sort of niche job: she is an ‘app whisperer’, according to her Wikipedia page, a ‘beta tester with a wild talent’ and a ‘reputation for radically improving product prior to release’. She lives in San Francisco, sleeping on a friend’s sofa since she split up with her last boyfriend, a billionaire tech venture capitalist called Stetson Howell (echoes there of Bigend, who wears a ‘chocolate brown Stetson’ hat), and has just been hired by a company called Tulpagenics to test a new piece of kit: a pair of glasses, earpiece and phone, loaded with or connected to a digital assistant called Eunice (‘No last name. Siri and Alexa don’t have them either, but the resemblance stops there’). Eunice is sentient, passing the Turing test with flying colours. Verity wonders if ‘there’s not someone somewhere doing Eunice,’ but there isn’t. She – Verity begins to think of Eunice as ‘she’ almost immediately – is an artificial intelligence, whose origins are mysterious, though almost certainly military, and her arrival in Verity’s life is about to make it a lot more complicated.

Conscious computer programs aside, Verity’s world seems at first to be recognisably the same as ours. The three novels Gibson wrote in the 1980s, Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, which form a loose trilogy, are set in a speculative future, a dystopian, post-Third World War, hi-tech mid-21st century. The three novels he wrote in the 1990s, Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties, are set in a nearer future, the early 21st century, after San Francisco and Tokyo have been hit by earthquakes. The three novels he wrote between 2003 and 2010, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History, are set in the here and now, or the there and then. It’s an impressive body of work – daunting, even, if it weren’t such fun to read – and curiously coherent, three trilogies written over three decades, all concerned with the development of artificial intelligence and the ways people interact, or interface (Gibson has said he ‘swooned’ the first time he overheard computer programmers, in Seattle in the early 1980s, use ‘interface’ as a verb) with machines, zooming back in time towards us from an imaginary future. Gibson is often hailed as a prophet of the internet age, having coined the word ‘cyberspace’ in a short story in 1982, but he’s the first to downplay the idea, and by the time Spook Country came out in 2007, the 2006 imagined in Virtual Light had already failed to come to pass.

In The Peripheral (2014), Gibson tackled the question of divergent futures, or non-overlapping timelines, head on. The novel is set half in rural Appalachia (aka ‘the county’) in the mid-21st century, where the point of view belongs to a young woman called Flynne Fisher; and half in London seventy years later, seen through the eyes of a young man called Wilf Netherton. The characters in the different timeframes are able to interact with each other, but only through electronic media. It’s a form of virtual time travel: you can’t physically go to the past or the future, but you can Skype it (not that anyone actually uses Skype; their tech is a lot more sophisticated). There are other restrictions, too. (Trying to describe time loops without getting hopelessly tangled up in them is quite difficult. Gibson has a gift for keeping everything straight. I’ll do my best.) The starting point is Netherton’s world, in the 22nd century, where someone, somehow, possibly through a mysterious server somewhere in China (the actual means don’t really matter; as Arthur C. Clarke put it, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’), has found a way to make contact electronically with the past. But not with their own past, because at the moment of contact, a new timeline – known to people in the Future, somewhat dismissively, as a ‘stub’ – is created. The contact from the Future only happens in the stub, not in the Future’s own past. Unlike in most time travel stories, in other words, you can’t change your present by changing the past. That’s the most important restriction. A couple of others: it isn’t possible to create stubs within stubs; and time passes at the same rate in a stub as it does in the Future – i.e. when three hours or three days have passed since first contact for Netherton, three hours or three days have also passed for Flynne, a dynamic reflected in the novel’s structure, as the narrative alternates strictly between their points of view – odd-numbered chapters for her, even for him.

The reason for going into all this is that Agency, it soon transpires, is set in the same universe as The Peripheral. The novel is divided into 110 very short chapters, and in Chapter 2, on page seven, we are (re)introduced to Netherton, and discover that Verity inhabits a stub that branched off much earlier than Flynne’s, in 2015. At the end of Chapter 3, we get this: ‘The president hadn’t looked terrified, Verity thought … She’d looked like she was on the case.’ The US presidential election isn’t the only vote that went the other way in the stub’s version of 2016: the UK also voted to remain in the EU.

Gibson, who lives in Vancouver, was in London on 31 January. ‘Dreamt of a squealing, woad-smeared Nigel Farage,’ he tweeted, ‘weakly prancing naked at Stonehenge, then woke to see I’d slept, soul-delayed, through the start of Brexit Hour.’ ‘Soul delay’ is jet lag: Cayce, recently arrived in London at the beginning of Pattern Recognition, imagines that ‘her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here … Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.’ Whether or not you like Gibson’s novels will depend less on your enthusiasm for stories about time travel and artificial intelligence than on whether or not you like sentences like this. I do, a lot.

Is Verity’s stub, then, a site of liberal wish-fulfilment, with Hillary Clinton in the White House and Brexit dodged? Perhaps, but it’s a disappointed fantasy if so. ‘They aren’t necessarily that much happier than people were here,’ a character in the Future says, ‘with the opposite outcome.’ (Or, as a character from Flynne’s stub puts it, ‘there’s lots of people happier with a dumbfuck in the White House.’) More urgently, an incident at Qamishli, on the Syria-Turkey border, is threatening to escalate into nuclear war. And given Clinton’s record – above all, the catastrophic intervention in Libya in 2011, when she was secretary of state, though the novel doesn’t remind us of that – there’s little reason to hope things will turn out all right. Which is where Eunice comes in. Netherton works, unofficially, for Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer of the Metropolitan Police, whose ‘hobby’ is interfering in stubs in the hope of averting disaster, or at least improving outcomes. And Eunice, though operating autonomously, is part of Lowbeer’s plan to prevent nuclear apocalypse.

Lowbeer’s motives are, like much else about her, opaque. Her official rank of detective inspector doesn’t begin to reflect how much power she actually has. (She is also well over a hundred years old and used to be a man.) Verity asks her why she’s helping them, why she cares. ‘You and everyone else in your world are as real as we are,’ Lowbeer replies, which isn’t much of an answer when it comes down to it: she surely says it to reassure herself as much as Verity. ‘I’ve never gotten over my own initial impression,’ Netherton says, ‘that the stubs were a game.’ Lowbeer acknowledges the ‘undeniably imperial aspect of what we’re doing’, but doesn’t see that as a reason to stop.

And there are hints that her purposes may be instrumental as well as altruistic; that she is using stubs to rehearse interventions that she intends to make in her own world too. The Future, to visitors from the past, looks like a utopia of comfort and ease, but it has come at immense cost: most life on Earth has been wiped out, in a confluence of events, mostly climate-related, known collectively as the ‘jackpot’. ‘Hard to imagine they weren’t constantly happy, given all they still had,’ someone says of people in the past, of us. ‘Tigers, for instance.’ What little organic life has survived in the Future is precariously maintained: the London skyline bristles with multiple shards that ‘scrub the air’ to make it breathable for humans. Power is concentrated in the hands of the ‘klept’, a criminal oligarchy. And Lowbeer, according to the disgruntled scion of one klept family, is ‘altering stubs to produce worlds in which the klept enjoy less power’. Very little comes of these hints in Agency – but there will be a third novel to complete the trilogy.

Meanwhile, in 2017, Verity spends most of the book being whisked around San Francisco, in cars and vans and on the back of a motorbike, by a network established to keep her safe from the people who stole Eunice from the military and are now desperate to get her back. Her most constant physical companion is a combat drone, built on Eunice’s instructions by a company that usually makes hi-tech movie props. It’s driven by a character from Flynne’s stub, and Netherton and others from the Future also have remote access to it. It’s clunky-looking, reminding Verity of an ‘Italian heater her mother had had, an electric oil-filled radiator’, but also looks like ‘the larval stage of something much more intimidating, headed off to a nursery for robot monsters’. And, in the right hands, it’s deadly. There’s a fair amount of violence, but the main characters experience or witness most of it remotely, mediated through technology. There’s little sense of threat in the novel, and what should be the high-octane, adrenaline-pumping moments are curiously muted. I think this is probably deliberate, reflecting the way certain kinds of violence are inflicted in the real world: a drone pilot at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada launches a missile at a target in Yemen while his masters in Washington sit around a table watching the attack over a live video feed.

The biggest jolt comes not with an explosion or a motorbike chase, but as Verity, chatting to Eunice on her headset, strolls to a café on Valencia Street: ‘As they were stepping inside, Eunice having just remarked on the colour of paint on the wood-mullioned door, a faint scything of static swept through the headset.’ And like that, Eunice is gone. Verity feels bereft, and wonders what it means to mourn software, if it’s possible to love a computer program, for a computer program to be alive. There’s an obvious analogue here, in that the reader feels bereft too: I like Eunice, and miss her when she disappears. But what does that mean, to mourn a fictional character? Does it make sense to say that Hamlet, or Don Quixote, thinks or can die? There are moments when Verity finds herself crying about Eunice; it isn’t all that different from crying when Beth dies in Little Women. That said, there are obvious limits to the reality, or aliveness, of fictional characters; and however much we may feel for them, or miss them when they’re gone, it takes someone like Dominic Cummings to try to offer them a job.

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